The music industry that long took for granted the subjects of Morgan Neville's documentary 20 Feet from Stardom -- backup singers, generally, and five remarkable female masters of the profession, specifically, namely Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Darlene Love and Tata Vega -- is now helping to shine a spotlight on them just before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begins to vote to determine whether or not the inspirational tearjerker will take home the best documentary feature Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards.
The remarkable journey of 20 Feet from Stardom started almost exactly a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered, with the ladies in attendance, to great acclaim. TWC-RADiUS quickly snapped up its rights and released it theatrically over the summer, whereupon it received favorable reviews from 99% of all critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com, and grossed $4.8 million, more than all other 2013 docs save for those about One Direction and Justin Bieber. The ladies, meanwhile, gained considerable prominence as more and more people caught up with the film, and even performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" on national television before the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. And then, on Jan. 16, it was announced as one of the year's best documentary feature Oscar nominees.
Now, no less a music legend than Mick Jagger is trying to get together a Broadway production and TV series about their lives, and, at various festivities during the week leading up to Sunday's Grammy Awards, they are blowing away entertainment industry audiences left and right, increasing the profiles of both their film and themselves. This will only help their cause when the final round of Oscar voting takes place between Feb. 14 and Feb. 25.
On Thursday, the ladies were the featured performance at the annual Billboard Power 100 Gala gathering of the 100 most influential people in the music industry. After being introduced by 12 Years a Slave's Oscar-nominated producer and director Steve McQueen, one of their biggest fans, they blew away the audience with individual performances and then a group song.
Then, on Friday, they will perform at the Grammys' MusiCares Personal of the Year tribute/fundraiser, which this year honors Carole King and benefits emergency financial assistance and addiction recovery programs, alongside the likes of Lady Gaga, Zac Brown, Leanne Rimes, Sara Bareilles, Jason Mraz, Pink, James Taylor, Steven Tyler, will.i.am and Train.
And, on Sunday, Hill will sing backup behind Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at the Grammys show itself during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles debut. That's about as big as it gets.
In short, theirs is a feel-good story -- and they are omnipresent just when it is most useful to be. And I think that their film is the one to beat in the best documentary feature Oscar race.
20 Feet's biggest awards hurdle, in my estimation, was actually just getting nominated. The documentary branch's 210 active members are tough cookies with strange quirks -- for instance, they don't like any sort of scene recreations in docs, which did in the awards prospects of great examples of the genre from The Thin Blue Line to this year's Stories We Tell. And they generally don't like glossy music docs, of which there have been many -- although few of 20 Feet's quality -- which made me worry that it was susceptible to being bounced by the likes of The Armstrong Lie or The Crash Reel, which are the latest works of revered members of the doc community (Alex Gibney and Lucy Walker, respectively), or Blackfish or Tim's Vermeer, which are among this year's widely buzzed-about docs.
Having now cleared that hurdle, though, I don't know what can stop them. The final round of voting for the doc Oscar is open to all members of the Academy, who, presented with the options of docs about long-married Japanese artists (Cutie and the Boxer), Indonesian war criminals (The Act of Killing), allegations about American misdeeds (Dirty Wars), Egyptian political turmoil (The Square) and backup singers, are, in all likelihood, going to get behind the only one of the ground that is about a subject everyone loves -- music -- and makes for a feel-good moviegoing experience.
And how's this for a fun fact: 22 years ago, the Academy voted to honor a rather similar, also excellent film with a best documentary feature Oscar: In the Shadow of the Stars. At the moment, I expect history to repeat itself.